By Kumar David –
From the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, no from the latter part of Gorbochev’s cock-up, Russia has been sick, a wounded creature crawling on its belly. The state-owned economy was ripped and robbed by squadrons of oligarchs capitalising on the neoliberal Washington Consensus of the IMF, World Bank, and US Treasury, and dyed-in-the-wool dogma of American academia’s MIT economics department. At its nadir, poverty exceeded 50%, starvation and malnutrition spread, and alcoholism was up by 60%. Population declined sharply due to deprivation, not natural aging. Soviet rump Russia was a spent force, an impotent flop, bereft of military and economic clout. In this decade and a half long lean years NATO humiliated the rump, pushing its unwashed posterior right up the prostrate bear’s nose.
Nevertheless, strategically, Russia is custodian of the world’s largest and possibly dirtiest nuclear arsenal, though the efficacy of its delivery systems is suspect against high-tech American defences. But enough of a first salvo will get through to destroy metropolitan conurbations. As a global power, Russia will raise its head at a pace depending on opportunity and leadership. The question is whether this has already commenced. Putin scored a good six months in the second half of 2013 and successfully projected his national and international visibility. What next?
You can’t keep a resource rich country with superior research and education, a skilled labour-force and a classy cultural ethos down in the mud forever. If English is supreme in poesy (a multitude led by Shakespeare) Russian literature can claim a comparable status in prose (Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov for starters); and so it goes in music and ballet, architecture and in the sciences. On the grand scale the Russian chronicle sweeps through Peter the Great, the rituals of Orthodoxy, and a hundred year revolutionary tradition from Herzen to Bakunin to Lenin.
Russia in numbers
Let me first sketch some basic data. Russia (2.1) has consolidated its position as the world’s sixth largest economy after the EU (17), US (16.5), China (8.5), Japan (6) and Brazil (2.3) – leaving aside Germany (3.5), France (2.6) and UK (2.5) which are part of the EU – but it will be passed by India (1.8) some time in the future. [In parenthesis are current GPD values in trillions of dollars at nominal exchange rates]. Foreign trade has been splendid for a few years, bank rolled by massive energy exports; signs of economic recovery are visible. Population, 160 million, sixth largest in 1990 and declining, will soon be passed by Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nigeria where they breed like rats.
Russia of course is known as the largest in the world by land area, but what is not known so well is that it is also by far the resource richest. It is the world’s largest oil and gas exporter, and also holds the world’s largest natural gas, second largest coal, and eighth largest oil reserves. Let’s get this straight; providence endowed Russia with the mantle of “natural” great power.
[Website “Wall Street 24/7” ranks the world’s ten most natural-resource rich countries (trillions $) as: Russia (75.7), USA (45), Saudi Arabia (34.4), Canada (33.2), Iran (27.3), China (23), Brazil (21.8), Australia (19.9), Iraq (15.9) and Venezuela (11.7). The methodology over-weights energy resources, but still useful: ].
Russia’s GDP growth rate was expected to top 3.4% in 2012 and 2013 but fell well short at 1.8 to 2%. Growth was demand (consumption) driven, not investment driven, this is bad at this stage. The state has taken the oil and gas sector back into public ownership and the omnipotent president has chastised the oligarchy which runs the economy for low productivity and inadequate investment. Is this a sign of more impending state intervention? It would not be out of tenor with Putin’s invigorated interventionism in his third term.
Putin’s rejuvenation has to be placed in context; he believes that without reinvigorating Russia’s great-power status a dynamic domestic agenda cannot be tracked. It is the opposite of the strategy enunciated by Deng; keep your head down and don’t attract attention while gobbling up economic gains. Putin is right in Russia’s global context, just as Deng’s approach paid off for China. Given different past and present global contexts, and different national ethos pertaining to greed and wealth, obviously, different current strategies are demanded.
A troubled world
Civil wars or mass protests have erupted in Syria, Kiev in the Ukraine, Egypt, Mali, Bangkok, the Central African Republic, Somalia and South Sudan – not counting Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen. There is no denying the urgency of a summons to peace, so in Urbi et Orbi (City and the World) the Bishop of Rome and pontiff of the catholic world devoted much time to an appeal for peace in a world tearing itself apart. His silence on poverty however, could not have been louder to the chagrin of those who sought the echo of another Francis who dedicated his life to the poor exactly 800 years ago.
Again, we live an uneasy world and Putin makes his play to reposition Russia in troubled times. He has gamed in Syria and the Ukraine. In the former he came out winner while Obama dithered and Congress flopped, and in the Ukraine his acolyte Viktor Yanukovych is trying to wear down the opposition. The Yanukovych side won four out of five by-elections on December 26 dealing a blow to protesters in Kiev. Putin’s $15 billion credit-line and offer of gas at 1/3 discount is also sweet. The Ukraine is critical to securing Russia’s near abroad, and this message has reached the EU. The EU knows that goading Russian life and death anxieties is best avoided.
I was in the US when Putin played his Syrian trump, averting an American strike and securing an international deal on chemical weapons. He saved Obama’s skin and won laudatory reviews in what was a Putin-week in the US media. He repositioned himself, and now Washington and the West cannot get a deal with Iran unless Russia plays an active role. Iranian President Hassan Rowhani invited Putin to Teheran during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Kyrgyzstan. Iran, for its part, is in the process of restructuring its regional relationships – a topic that calls for a separate essay in its own right. The Middle East wind is blowing in Putin sails after he saved Assad from a near-death experience.
Obama and the Americans have made a cock-up of Egypt policy, in effect propping up a military dictatorship. The idiocy of the Egyptian military invites a backlash and possibly a future Islamic state. It also opens the door for an Iran-Russian axis to cosy up to the Muslim Brotherhood if Iran’s sectarian bent and Russia’s internal sensitivities to Jihadism can be assuaged. But I do not think Cairo is big on Putin’s radar for now. Putin is engaged in bold moves to rebuild Russia’s great power image, so it is simplistic to reduce it all to an ego trip – though he no doubt enjoys his Man of the Year status. The truth is bigger; the aim is to position Russia globally, which in turn rejuvenates domestic politics and encourages economic revitalization. (Another significant topic which also justifies a separate essay in its own right is the careful rebuilding of Sino-Russian ties). All in all, it’s a championship game Putin is playing.
Lesser plays and ploys
As he begins his 15th year as paramount leader, Putin has launched multifaceted initiatives to centralise power, manage the regions, purge the oligarchy, and spruce up the regime’s image. He gave Edward Snowden asylum, no doubt relishing the wedge it drove between Berlin and Washington. His humanitarian gestures such as freeing Khodorkovsky, Greenpeace activists and Pussyfoot pranksters reflect a sure-footed leader. The $50 billion Sochi Winter Olympics is a gamble and it remains to be seen how it pays off. The two bomb blasts in Volgograd last week are unlikely to make an impact on the games and will only strengthen Putin’s hand. Last month his approval rating stood at 61 percent, down from a high in excess of 70% some time ago. Naturally, he would not be averse to burnishing his image and deflecting criticisms of authoritarianism.
No doubt you won’t like it if I stopped now in this state of interruptus without a finale or conclusion of some sort. Many speak of an emerging multi-polar world but spell out precious little detail beyond pointing at America and China. I will stick out my silly neck and make two assertions.
Japan’s logo as the world’s third economic power will decline and it will drop into a common third-place pool whose members will include Germany, Russia, Brazil and later, India. On the global military podium, America will retain gold for another quarter century in the old sectors (land, air and sea) and in military cyber and space capabilities. China will hold on to silver as it catches up in some of these fields. Russia will oil its guns and spruce its jets to clinch a burnished bronze medal.